University years ahead of state law, still faces problems with sexual assault
THE SANTA CLARA
October 9, 2014
On the east coast, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz is carrying a mattress around campus every day until her alleged rapist is expelled. On the west coast, Gov. Jerry Brown passed a law last week requiring all California universities to incorporate a policy of “affirmative consent” in sexual assault cases or risk losing state funding.
Santa Clara remains ahead of the curve. The university has had an affirmative consent policy in place for several years. However, federal regulations hinder Santa Clara’s ability to clearly report sexual assaults that occur on and off campus. Like most universities, Santa Clara also faces the problem of underreported sexual assaults, which could be due to social stigma or the intensive reporting process itself.
The new “Yes Means Yes” law calls for universities to explicitly define consent as a voluntary agreement rather than passive silence or a lack of resistance. According to the legislation, someone who is incapacitated or unconscious is unable to consent to sex. Santa Clara’s sexual misconduct policy follows this state requirement to a tee.
“For more than a decade, we’ve been doing what this law is intending,” said Philip Beltran, director of Campus Safety Services.
Last week, Santa Clara released its 2014 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report — which named the number of sexual offenses that occurred from 2011 to 2013 — in accordance with the Clery Act, a federal statute requiring universities to log crime statistics.
According to the statistics, there were 0 reports of forcible sex offenses in 2011, 1 in 2012 and 7 in 2013.
“There has been an increase in the number of reports, and I attribute that to an increase in the education that we’re doing on the topic,” said Matthew Duncan, associate dean for student life. “More people are being informed on what constitutes sexual misconduct. Now more people are coming forward and reporting the incidents.”
The Clery Act creates universal categories to analyze sexual offenses on college campuses across the nation. However, some members of the Santa Clara community say that the figures under the Clery Act may not be an accurate representation of the amount of sexual violence that students experience.
“To me, those numbers were shockingly low,” said Libby Furrow, assistant resident director at Graham Hall.
These figures may be due to the number of students that live off-campus, according to Duncan.
Incidents occurring on properties not owned or controlled by the university are not reflected in the Clery figures.
“As a matter of fact, there have been instances where the Department of Education has taken issue when universities have included that information because the law very specifically says these are the categories and we want to (be) consistent when reported across universities across the nation,” Duncan said. That doesn’t reflect all of the numbers for a given year.”
When accounting for off-campus sexual assault reports, the number of sexual assaults increases. The Office of Student Life logged 5 reports of sexual assaults in 2012, 8 in 2013 and 13 so far in 2014.
Unlike the data under the Clery Act, this data includes reports of sexual assaults at off-campus residences and only pertains to reports involving Santa Clara students.
Underreporting of sexual assaults is a nationwide epidemic, one to which Santa Clara is not immune.
“Sexual assault happens here. Rape culture exists here,” said junior Jennie Robinson, program coordinator of Feminists for Justice, a campus organization that aims to empower women. “Personally, I know three girls who have been sexually assaulted. One of them reported it.”
Santa Clara provides an extensive support system for students who experience sexual assault, including advocates for sexual assault survivors, a readily available sexual misconduct policy and resources from Counseling and Psychological Services.
Though this system is necessary to properly evaluate and handle sexual assault reports, the process can be discouraging for a recent victim.
Robinson said her friend who had been sexually assaulted had to speak with her community facilitator, the Office of Student Life and a police officer on three separate occasions to report the incident.
“Three rounds of her having to tell her story and being forced to go through that feeling again,” Robinson said. “Just talking about it made her very emotional and I can’t imagine how hard it was for her.”
Once cases are reported, even fewer are pursued in court.
Last week, Campus Safety Services reported two instances of campus residents who had been sexually assaulted. Neither victim chose to file charges against their perpetrators.
The stigma associated with being a victim of sexual assault is another possible cause of underreporting on college campuses, students also said.
“People don’t want this to be a public thing,” said Furrow. “For some people, you’re met with blame, especially if you personally knew your attacker beforehand.”
According to Assistant Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Sharmila Lodhia, students may feel less inclined to report assaults if they are fearful that their actions may be scrutinized, such as if they were drinking or at a party.
However, she said the new California law may be helpful in addressing this stigma on a statewide scale.
“No individual single thing is going to be a miracle cure for this problem,” said Lodhia. “But it’s a first step toward shifting the discourse around this issue in a way that might be meaningful.”
Contact Vishakha Joshi at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4849.